You could easily mistake The Dissident for a Hollywood thriller at times.
The camera pans over the night time city skyline and a man in a hotel room talks furtively into a phone about revenge and illegal acts. Omar Abdulaziz—an internet activist—is a wanted man.
Through him we’re introduced to a story of a gruesome political assassination, and a dangerous international pursuit to bring those responsible to justice.
But The Dissident isn’t a thriller, it’s a documentary.
It’s the true story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who walked into his country’s consul in Istanbul and disappeared.
In chilling detail it shows exactly how he was murdered by a crack team of Saudi assassins. We also learn that shortly before his murder, Khashoggi began financing a network of Twitter accounts, launched by Abdulaziz, to criticise Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
This is something Saudi spies likely knew, having hacked both their phones using Israeli spyware technology. But the motives for Khashoggi’s killing were much bigger than that.
Khashoggi was not a typical “dissident”.
Instead, the film says, he was a regime insider and a careful agitator for reform. In interviews, Khashoggi insists the Saudi king is “not a dictator. He rules by consensus, and I’m sure the tide eventually will be won over by the reformists.”
But the changing shape of politics in the Middle East puts him on the wrong side of the regime.
The Arab Spring terrified the Saudi regime—and convinced Khashoggi that repressive governments have to reform if they are to survive. He supported parts of Bin Salman’s plan to “modernise” the Saudi state, but opposed the prince’s crackdown on critics.
Bin Salman wanted to establish Saudi Arabia as a renewed dominant power in the Middle East, closely linked to the US under Donald Trump.
He didn’t want his plan undermined by critics—and feared the dissent that Khashoggi was apparently encouraging.
The brutal murder of Khashoggi is where these threads tie together. The Dissident leaves no doubt that Bin Salman personally ordered—and possibly even watched via video link—Khashoggi’s assassination.
It backfired spectacularly. The murder became an international scandal. High profile politicians and business people pulled out of an international conference to win support for him and his regime.
The world knows Bin Salman is a murderer.
Yet, as the film ends by pointing out, no state has ever taken action against him, including—pointedly—the US.